Sports TV’s roots: First Monday Night Football game laid foundation for modern NFL telecasts

My latest column for the National Sports Journalism Center at Indiana is on watching the first Monday Night Football telecast and how set the template for what we see today.


Last week, I wrote about ESPN’s Megacast offering a myriad of platforms to consume the college football championship game. Coming next year: A Megacast option allowing viewers to exercise with Richard Simmons while watching the game.

Next week, NBC will have 24,916 cameras for its coverage of the Super Bowl. Looking forward to the Tom Brady toe nail cam.

So it seemed fitting in a time when sports TV continues to push various envelopes, I got a chance to see where it all came from: ABC’s debut of “Monday Night Football” in 1970.

On Friday, Mike Bass, my old Daily Illini teammate, invited me to join his Northwestern sports journalism class in watching the monumental telecast at the Museum of Broadcast Communications in Chicago.

I told the class ABC’s coverage of the Jets-Cleveland game on Sept. 21, 1970, truly was an indelible moment in TV sports history. It only changed everything, the seed from which ESPN, sports talk radio and basically modern sports TV was born.

Prior to that game, TV sports coverage was straight down the middle, devoid of any bells and whistles.

“An NFL telecast almost was a church event,” Al Michaels recalled last week.

Also, the notion that viewers would watch the NFL in prime time was ludicrous in 1970. CBS actually passed on the opportunity because it didn’t want to bump the “Doris Day Show” on Monday night. Think about that one for a while.

Enter Roone Arledge, arguably the single most important figure ever in TV sports. He decided to turn “Monday Night Football” into an event, not just a game. While the other networks used four cameras to televise game, and mostly relying on the 50-yard line angle, Arledge used nine or 10 cameras, providing shots never seen on a football telecast.

Arledge also foisted Howard Cosell on an unsuspecting nation. Instead of bland football analysis, Cosell’s provocative and polarizing persona was a culture shock. You can argue that sports talk radio and all those sports studio shows started with the man who always said, “I tell it like it is.”

Previously, I only had seen snippets of ABC’s first MNF telecast. It was a real treat to see the whole thing, complete with commercials.

Speaking of commercials, cigarette advertising still was allowed on TV in 1970. Let history show that the first ad on MNF featured the Marlboro man, drinking coffee and taking a deep drag on the high plain.

I also have to note an incredibly sexist ad for Goodyear. It showed a woman nervously driving through the rain to pick up her husband at the airport. The point was that a man should think of his feeble wife when buying the best and safest tires. Hard to believe that aired in my lifetime.

One other thing also stood out: the commercial breaks only were one minute. That’s it. And there was no such thing as the dreaded touchdown, 2-2:30 run of ads, kickoff, and then another 2-2:30 break combination. What a novel concept: 60 seconds and then back to football.

Cosell opened the telecast by saying, “Welcome to ABC’s primetime, nationally-televised National Football League series.”

The open included Cosell interviewing Joe Namath, who really was a presence with his long, wavy hair. Then his introduction to Don Meredith gave a prelude for the future irreverence on MNF. It featured a montage of “Dandy Dan” getting clobbered during his days as Dallas’ quarterback.

“I didn’t know y’all were going to do that,” Meredith said.

Yet beyond mocking Meredith, the initial stages of that first telecast were fairly conventional. Back then, the play-by-play man dominated the telecasts. Keith Jackson was the only voice viewers heard through Jets’ first series, a 3-and-out resulting in a punt, and the first three plays of the Browns series. Finally, Cosell weighed in with a generic observation on tight end Milt Morin.

During the second quarter, I turned to Mike and said, “You know, this is pretty dull.” I’m sure the students were wondering if my flagging memory had inflated how good early MNF actually was.

“Remember,” I told the class. “This was their first game. They didn’t go from 0 to 60 right out of the gate.”

Sure enough, some snippets of their true personalities eventually emerged. There was this exchange.

Jackson: “You can tell by now that Cleveland Stadium is a cacophony of sound.”

Meredith: “What in the world is that?”

Jackson: “I got that from Howard.”

Later, Meredith couldn’t hold back in discussing Cleveland receiver Fair Hooker.

“Isn’t Fair Hooker a great name?” Meredith said.

“I pass,” Cosell said.

At halftime, Cosell displayed his singular talents in narrating the highlights for the first time from Sunday’s games. “There’s the irrepressible Deacon Jones,” he said, sending viewers to their dictionaries.

Then there was his immortal label for “the New York Football Giants,” a term Chris Berman still uses in tribute to Cosell.

Meredith and Cosell seemed to step it up in the second half, as they got more comfortable with their roles in the telecast. In a few weeks, they would hit their stride, prompting Cosell to eventually boast that viewers tuned in to watch them as much as the game.

Through the perspective of college students in 2015, the first MNF telecast had to seem uninspiring. No score box; no first down line; no elaborately produced graphics.

Yet you had to view the game through the prism of a sports TV viewer in 1970. That first telecast was so cutting edge. The multiple cameras allowed Arledge to deliver isolation shots on players. He showed replays from an endzone view. Arledge also placed microphones on the field, capturing sound from players.

The game ended with a famous shot of Namath, with his head bowed and slumped shoulders, after he threw an interception to seal the Browns’ win. Director Chet Forte kept the cameras on him for nearly 30 seconds, capturing the emotions of the great quarterback in defeat. Football fans hadn’t seen or heard a game that way before.

Arledge also changed the dynamic with his pairing of Cosell and Meredith. You could argue that it paved the way for the highly unconventional John Madden to become a TV superstar in the ‘80s.

Arledge always wanted his good friend Frank Gifford to be part of the telecast. However, “The Giffer” still was under contract to CBS in 1970. When he became available, Arledge made him the play-by-play voice for MNF in 1971. He told a dejected Jackson that he would be great on college football. How did that work out?

Indeed, Arledge was a true genius in TV, as he also transformed ABC News. I told the class when he died in 2002, my obituary on him ran on A-1 of the Chicago Tribune.

“He turned the way sports are done inside out,” said Dick Ebersol, his protégée.

As the years pass, Arledge’s legacy will fade. Yet those in the business never will forget him. In fact, every NFL telecast, including NBC’s upcoming work on the Super Bowl, pays tribute to Arledge.

Arledge laid out the blueprint with that first telecast of Monday Night Football in 1970. They’re still using it today.



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